Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dorms In Serangoon Gardens

Source : The Straits Times, Sep 18, 2008

No decision made yet, says Mah

But integration of foreign workers is a larger issue that must be tackled

No decision has been made about setting up a foreign worker dormitory in Serangoon Gardens, but it is hoped it will come in a couple of weeks.

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan, disclosing this to reporters yesterday, also took the opportunity to raise a larger issue - that of balancing the economic growth that foreign workers bring with the ‘disamenities’ to local residents.

He said it was impossible to segregate the foreign worker population - now at 577,000, excluding domestic maids - so Singaporeans must ‘be prepared to see them and share with them our common spaces’.

The issue of housing foreign workers in residential areas was thrown into sharp relief two weeks ago when residents in Serangoon Gardens heard that the former Serangoon Gardens Technical School in their neighbourhood was to be converted into a dormitory for 1,000 foreign workers.

A petition against the move was started and, at a dialogue session with their MPs, many residents were vocal about the prospects of traffic congestion and the lack of security if foreign workers were to move into their estate.

Mr Mah said he had noted their concerns and saw why they were upset.

‘They felt it was already a done deal, that we had made up our minds,’ he said.

He went on to say that no decision had been made yet, and that information on the proposal was leaked to Serangoon Gardens residents prematurely, before a feasibility study on whether the site could be shortlisted for further use was completed.

It had not even been decided who would be housed there - construction workers or workers in manufacturing - or how many workers would be housed, he said.

If the site were to be shortlisted, his ministry would then consult the MPs and grassroots leaders for the area, he added.

Unfortunately, before the study was completed, ’someone somewhere made a mistake and it went out, and there was a miscommunication’.

Ms Sujata Jayaram, 43, who chairs the Chartwell neighbourhood committee, said: ‘I’m glad to hear it is not a done deal, and I hope Mr Mah will listen to the residents. We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed.’

The minister added that fewer than 10 sites - vacant tracts of state land and properties like the former Serangoon Gardens Technical School - were being considered as temporary dorms, good for the next three to five years.

Mr Mah said it concerned him to see the debate on foreign workers framed as ‘one group against another’ - those in landed property versus those in public housing, or foreigners versus locals.

‘We should move away from the zero sum - I win, you lose - kind of situation and move the debate into something a lot more meaningful, a lot more constructive,’ he said.

The larger issue was segregation and integration, he added.

It was not ideal to segregate foreign workers in their own communities, and ‘even if we wanted to do it in Singapore, the land is so scarce’, he said.

He urged Singaporeans to consider the role of foreign workers and the larger social issue of how to ‘accept and live with a larger foreign worker population’.

Everyone - the foreign workers, locals, employers and government agencies - could play a role.

The Government, on its part, has formed an inter-ministry committee to look into housing, infrastructure and amenities for foreign workers.

Mr Mah also said it was wrong to ‘demonise’ foreign workers.

‘I’m not saying all foreign workers are angels, but neither am I saying all of them are criminals,’ he said.

‘The truth is, there will be some black sheep, but by and large, most of them are here to earn a living, not to create problems.’

He added that Singaporeans must understand these workers keep a lid on costs and help the economy to grow.

‘Without them, we will be worse off. That’s a fact,’ he said.

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